Lapland may not have featured on your own personal list of ultimates, but let me tell you — if there are small people in your life, it will feature in theirs. Just maybe not in the way you’d originally planned...
It first became a “thing” in our house with the arrival of some very special post. Elf post, no less. An invitation, from the man himself. Yes, Mr Father Christmas Esq. Down the chimney (artfully singed by a match for authenticity), and personally addressed to each of the two children, Amelie, eight, and Charley, five. There was not the faintest whiff of suspicion that this might be #fakenews — just unbridled joy and excitement.
Pause. “Mummy — will there be reindeer?” ventured a little voice (Charley).
“There will be lots of reindeer,” was my confident reply. Cue some very loud whoops.
Another pause. “And will there be huskies?” (Amelie).
Now it was my turn to pause. “Well, yes. There will be lots of huskies, too.”
At this point the cheers were off the scale, victory laps were made, and the prospect of nuzzling up with a semi-wild animal with smelly breath surrounded by yellow snow sealed the deal.
Just wait, I told myself, until they meet the actual Father Christmas. Huskies would have no chance.
And so to Lapland. Where it is (almost always) very snowy, and there are lots of reindeer, and even more huskies. Recent weather reports suggest that this year the snow is proving a little late to arrive, but when we visited last December the first and last thing we saw was... snow. A lot of it. More, in fact than my children had ever seen before. So once at the hotel in the heart of the Santa Claus Village, 10 minutes from the Finnish city of Rovaniemi, actually getting to our cabin, dragging our cases with us, had to involve snowballs and snowmen.
If you’re still looking for authentic at this stage, this is where it ends. While it’s hard for a cluster of chalets to look anything but cute in this amount of snow surrounded by forest, the hotel sits on the edge of Santa Claus Village, which is essentially a small theme park, including husky park, reindeer rides, shops, cafes, ice restaurant and Snowman World ice chute. It won’t suit everyone — and indeed it wouldn’t normally be our choice — but as a way of packing our short stay in Lapland full of the most snow fun we could muster, it was Christmas on speed.
The 74 cabins all have their own terrace, sauna, lavatory, shower and mini-kitchen as well as Wi-Fi and satellite television. Without even putting the sauna on, the clean and very comfortable room was an average of 35C (95F). As red-blooded country bumpkins used to a draughty old house in the sticks, this was too much (I think we are possibly the only guests to have slept with the windows open), but the beds were comfy, and the whole effect rather snug.
The hotel has its own restaurant, with a daily breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet, as well as afternoon snack menu. The food is basic at best, with a focus on traditional Lappish cooking (you are, after all, in Lapland) and bunfight in atmosphere, the first of which didn’t appeal to the children and the second of which didn’t appeal to us. From the second night we opted to pay extra for the a la carte menu in the restaurant, and in a bid to avoid more reindeer meat and veg (“no darling, I’m sure it’s just beef“) one lunchtime I even resorted to cooking in our kitchenette: pasta and a jar of Dolmio from the tiny hotel shop.
But no matter! We weren’t here for luxurious accommodation or gourmet meals. We were here for snow! And reindeer! And huskies! And FATHER CHRISTMAS.
Having spent the first evening indulging in the snow bit, sledging down handily placed purpose-made mini mountains of snow around the cabins, making snow angels and perfecting the art of snowballing, the next day we awoke ready for the rest, and our eagerly anticipated Santa Claus Safari (this description kept from the children, since the aim was for the big man to make a surprise entrance).
Instead we waxed lyrical about the prospect of the reindeer farm, which, after a lengthy coach detour to be kitted out in matching thermal suits (I couldn’t help but be slightly dismayed that all our photos would be in regulation gear rather than the super cute winter wear we’d kitted the kids out in and the moon boots I’d finally treated myself to after 30 years), proved worth it. In an idyllic setting just a half-hour drive from the hotel, the small group of us had time to wander around and introduce ourselves to the reindeer residents before retreating to a traditional tepee.
Sitting around a fire we were treated to tales of lore and Lappish culture before a special Lapp ceremony of crossing the Arctic Circle. Obviously our charming Lappish hostess chose Daddy to wear the silly hat (he still hasn’t lived this down). Then (be still, beating heart) it was time for the reindeer ride, and a gentler, more magical way to travel across snow I cannot imagine. Not only that, the reindeer pulling Daddy and Charley’s sleigh also DID A POO en route, which is still hysterically LOL-ed about a year later. Then it was on to Ski-Doos (for me and hubby — the kids safely driven by the instructor in a big sled) for a magical romp through the snowy forest. Where the reindeer ride had been a gentle pootle over the snow, this was an exhilarating adrenalin charge through the trees. We stopped off in clearings where powder puffs of untouched icing sugar snow waited tantalisingly for us to jump in, and where we slow-moed breathlessly across to one another through the drifts as though walking on the moon.
Back at the farm, it was time for lunch — still with no sign of F.C. The kids were unperturbed, too busy discussing the relative virtues of favourite reindeers and speculating when they would pet their first husky. Then I got the nod, and we were beckoned across the room.
“Where do you think we’re going now?” I whispered excitedly. Charley turned and looked at me, eyes shining. “To see some huskies?”
“No,” said Amelie, deadpan behind him. “It’ll be Father Christmas.”
Trying to muster some of their toddler-age excitement, we grabbed their hands and strode purposefully toward the grotto — a traditionally decked out room where the big man was sat, elves in attendance ready to distribute gifts.
We shuffled across obediently, one child perched rather uncertainly on each of his knees, and had the obligatory photo taken. The children thanked him for his gifts, and we left. We paused outside.
“So,” said Daddy. “Who’s for Snowman World?”
“Yayyyyyy!” Father Christmas who?
Cue an evening spent whizzing down an ice slide on rubber rings, Stuart and I fortified via the ice bar. This, Charley professed, was THE BEST BIT.
That was, of course, until we arrived at the husky farm the next day and the children, drunk on husky love, staggered from pen to pen, cooing over every dog and creating their “dream team” for the husky drive.
It wasn’t only they who fell under the dogs’ spell. I had imagined how it might be to almost fly through the forest powered by these beautiful beasts — but I could never have conjured up the sense of connection that simply holding their harnesses gives you. The timeless wonder of dashing along forest tracks, with only the excited yelps of the dogs and the yells of the children (“Mush! Mush!”) to break up the swooshing of the sleighs across not-yet frozen pathways.
And, once I had mastered leaning INTO the direction of travel to steer, not AWAY from it as every instinct in me said I should, we motored happily along the forest paths, rather than veering directly into its vastness.
Back at the farm, there was time for hot bilberry juice and cookies in a log cabin around an open fire and stories from one of the pro husky mushers. The children, again, were rapt – until Charley and Amelie discovered puppies outside... Daisy and Lily entranced us for a good half-hour, until the tour was over and we had to return to our snowmobiles. (At least, I whispered in consolation to Amelie, we won’t have to hear Daddy’s “yellow snow, no go” joke again.)
I asked the children where, now having been to Lapland, they would say was their dream holiday. Disney, I ventured? The Antarctic? There was a pause, then a decisive answer delivered in unison: “Lapland again... but we probably don’t need to see Father Christmas next time.”
Fly to the magic
Fly Finnair from Dubai to Rovaniemi via Helsinki, from about Dh4,800 return.
The Daily Telegraph